By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
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Her lyrics match her pictures. She can wallow in biology, delighting in the red essence of it all: "Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon," she warns a disconnecting but still responsible lover in her hit "Silent All These Years." Sometimes she conveys real heat; other times she sounds like your 10-year-old nephew saying "titty." There is a boldness to her, though, a self-assuredness that goes beyond simply shocking people.
She was fearless enough to follow Earthquakes with an EP that featured covers--of already-owned songs by Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones--that break with the '90s trend of forgettable, letter-perfect re-creations. The songs on Crucify--"Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Thank You," and "Angie"--are recognizable but altered, fashioned in her own image.
Under the Pink, released in 1994, extended the fleshy imagery; listening to it was often like studying a Georgia O'Keeffe painting with a headful of mushrooms. "Icicle" is an ode to masturbation whose narrator suspects an imperfect Bible and ends up deciding to take communion with her own body instead.
Although her most ambitious and angry work so far, Pele still remains fiercely dedicated to one essential purpose--communication, a message from one soul to another about that long dark night. In that respect at least the album is as hatless and shoeless as they come. In "Horses," the narrator dreamily celebrates her freedom, a liberty that exists only at the whim of another, and it's impossible to tell if she's about to burst into tears, fall over, or both; on "Way Down," she uses gospel to lend weight to the song's downward momentum.
The usual excesses, however, are still there: The harpsichord lends many songs a spidery, baroque elegance, but when Amos attempts to rock things up with rolling, rapid-fire runs on the instrument, it's hard not to look around for the Munsters. The lyrics to "Father Lucifer" are trite and obvious, and despite the powerfully evocative singing on the rest of "Blood Roses," when Amos mocks a lover with "I think you're a qwee-ah," the affectation trips the song up every time.
Talk with her, though, and you quickly get the impression she is more interested in expressing herself than achieving some sort of formulaic perfection. What she has to get off her chest is a resentment born out of having to change an entire part of her life, a change that at least partially involved her breakup with boyfriend and producer Eric Rosse in 1994. It was a change that the head demanded, no matter how painful it was to the heart.
"A lot of the anger [in Pele] comes from a deep sadness," she says. "It was the end of a state of being, of relating, for me. I had to change my relationships with men ...not just boys, but all men, even my father...Sometimes people just can't continue, and you've got to split up and take two separate paths up the mountain of love. It's letting go, and that brings a great loss and great freedom."
Letting go is what animates Pele's two conversations with divinity, "Hey Jupiter" and "Muhammad My Friend."
"'Muhammad My Friend' is me looking for the seed of that idea: How did I come to think that guys gave me my own worth?" Amos elaborates. "'Hey Jupiter' is me just saying that's it--I've had enough, I just can't continue." Part of what disgusted her was the cyclical nature of fucked-up human interaction, as well as her own role in it.
"At first, you react to the anger by hurting both yourself and others, going on until everything falls apart...I would allow myself to be defecated on, and then go out and defecate on someone else," she admits, claiming to have broken the spiral by substituting accountability for reaction. "I see how it is, now, and instead of going off somewhere, I'm dragging your balls to Antarctica--no mittens!
"Right now my romanticized view of relationships is changing," she adds. "Not only that, but my concept of myself, my heart, my relationship with a soul mate--all that. There's not a resolution in sight--it's internal. Anger is an important tool, but anger without heart is just a lot of noise, like two elk in a field fighting over a piece of dough."
Tori Amos has her faults--as anyone who could be described as a willfully mystical, stool-riding, pig-suckling earth-mama philosopher must. But when it comes down to communicating, to imparting a kernel of one's own experience, she reminds us of the difference between ourselves and the elk better than most.
Singer-songwriter Tori Amos performs June 15 at the Bronco Bowl.